Monday, July 14, 2008

More reality

WARNING: Completely abstract blog post.

So, last week I wrote this blog post about confronting reality.

As it happened, the photographer of the tomato photo that I used in the post, Don LaVange, showed up in the comments and offered this critique:

The difficulty I have with your stated goal "The way I look at things, one of your very most important goals should always be to accurately perceive reality." is how futile, and therefore wrongheaded, such pursuit is. I see reality as infinitely deep, perceptions always varying depending on the context of the looking.

Maybe it's true that I attempt to perceive "reality", but if I try to frame that reality linguistically I think I'm always going to come up short, and so will we all.
When I wrote the post, I was thinking: "People are either not going to like this because they disagree with it, or they're not going to like it because they think it's too forehead-slappingly obvious to be worth pointing out." As between those two possibilities, I'm happy if the response was the former.

As I understand the last point in that comment, it's basically: how can we succeed in perceiving / confronting / dealing with reality ... if we can't even do such a simple thing as defining it in words?

Well, first of all, I've said before that I don't see language as an inevitable precondition of thought:
Yes, language can be essential to thought, but language can also box in thought. (I'm inclined to agree with the thought-precedes-language side of the debate outlined at that link.)

Just because we might lack the words to describe something doesn't mean we're not able to think about it. Does it?

I would go even further: just because we can't think about something doesn't mean it's not important!

Now, obviously, if there's something we can't think about at all, then there's nothing we can do about it. End of discussion (literally!).

But let's say there's something that we can go a good way forward in thinking about, but unfortunately always hit a brick wall at some point. If that's the case, then it really seems like we should say: hey, that's better than nothing! As Voltaire said, "The best is the enemy of the good." The fact that we're probably not going to settle on a comprehensive, uncontroversial answer to something like, say, "What is the good life?" is not a reason to avoid doing the best we can to approach a correct answer. After all, that question is complex and multifarious enough that even a highly incomplete answer would still be ... you know, pretty good!

It doesn't need to be that lofty, of course. It could be any specific decision you make in your life -- what house to buy, or what drink to order at a cafe. If you haven't looked closely at the house to check for defects, that's not perceiving reality. If you believe that "dark" coffee is more heavily caffeinated than "light" coffee, when actually light coffee has an infinitesimally greater amount of caffeine, that's not perceiving reality.

My point being: just because we're talking about a weighty-sounding philosophical concept, "reality," doesn't mean the solution needs to be a philosophical one. You have all these discrete perceptions, decisions, and experiences, and maybe from all those trillions of little things, there emerges some abstraction we can call "reality" (and others we can call "fantasy," "deception," etc.). But if that's the way it happens, does that mean that it's vital to grasp that emerging abstraction? Couldn't it be just as worthwhile to grasp enough of the discrete little things?

In short, I think it might valid to say that "reality" is the basic standard against which our beliefs and actions should be judged, even if we'd be hard-pressed to articulate a satisfying definition of the word.

Let's get back to LaVange's point that reality is "infinitely deep, perceptions always varying depending on the context of the looking." Of course, "perceptions" are not the same thing as "reality." He's not saying otherwise, though -- he's not saying there is no objective reality. He's just saying we'll never know what it is.

Now, maybe I would agree with that. But does that mean I also need to agree with the conclusion that it's not worthwhile to pursue knowledge of reality because doing so is bound to be futile?

No, because again, "the best is the enemy of the good." "The best" is: total knowledge of the real world. I'm happy to admit we'll probably never attain that.

But to throw up our hands at that point? That would be shunning "the good" -- namely ... getting reality as much as we can, and doing as much as we can to fix the problems with it.

Will it be an unmitigated success? No. Will we understand everything? No. Will it be totally satisfying? No.

So what's the point? Well, I don't think I can answer that without being blatantly circular: the point is it's what's real. There are some things you're just stuck with. We're stuck with reality. There's no way out.

Whether you believe it was created by God or blind physical forces or anything else doesn't really seem to matter. We'll never agree on those things -- that debate may very well be pointless. But we should be able to agree that the real world is what's here, now, right in front of us, and that that's really important.

That itself doesn't really get you anywhere and might not be any fantastic insight. So why am I talking about it? Because it's the starting point for whatever comes next -- in your thoughts, or your life. And if it's not the starting point ... well, then I think that's a serious problem.


1. How I've made peace with skeptical epistemology. (That discussion starts a few paragraphs into the post.)

2. Fortuitously, Church of Rationality just had a post yesterday on "the essence of life." See that post for an extremely condensed, 2-point distillation of life. Point 1 in particular is closely related to this post.

3. Althouse: "Time to participate in reality. It's beautiful too."


For the record, this is my 50th blog post. Now I just have to do that many posts, again, and I can have some kind of gala celebration.